Paul Gauguin, printer Pola Gauguin, Te po (Night Eternal), 1893–94 (printed 1921) woodcut, 20.5 x 25.5cm Ahlström collection, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Jenni Nurminen

Artek – a Bridge to the International Art World

Susanna Pettersson, PhD, Museum Director, Finnish National Gallery, Ateneum Art Museum

 Also published in Sointu Fritze (ed.), Alvar Aalto – Art and the Modern Form. Ateneum Publications Vol. 93. Helsinki: Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum, 2017, 48–69. Transl. Wif Stenger

The exhibitions organised by the Artek gallery enjoy an almost iconic status in the field of Finnish art. These exhibitions were bold and ambitious. The idea behind them was to bring together modern art, industry, interior design and ‘propaganda’, by which was meant publishing activity. The exhibitions also left a lasting mark on Finnish art and on the Ateneum art collection.

‘Europe – its symbol could be […] an airplane above a cathedral. America – its symbol is an airplane above a skyscraper. In the latter picture, there is perfect harmony. In the first there is not. The former represents the present day. The latter, the future.’ [1]

It was with these words that the writer Olavi Paavolainen, in his book Nykyaikaa etsimässä (In Search of Modern Time), published in 1929, expressed his generation’s desire to see the world through new eyes. Finnish artists were accustomed to finding inspiration broadly in European countries, primarily in France, Germany and Italy. Paavolainen had, in his dreams, travelled further afield, as far as New York and Chicago.

Paavolainen’s book tackled three themes: the modern European lifestyle, new trends in art and the new image of humanity. Paavolainen wrote with great passion on behalf of modernity and against conservatism. He emphasised that in ‘developing a modern view of life’ one should pay attention to all the arts, meaning literature, the visual arts, theatre and music. He considered architecture an applied art, regarding Le Corbusier as one of the boldest theorists in his field.[2] Paavolainen sought out the avant-garde spirit in those around him, mentioning by name many Finnish and foreign contemporary artists, writers and architects. However, in his view, in Finland there was only one interesting architect – Alvar Aalto. Paavolainen described him as ‘a practical man with a bold approach and a daring theorist’.[3] And besides, Aalto – unlike many others – travelled by airplane.[4]

[1] Olavi Paavolainen, Nykyaikaa etsimässä (Helsinki: Otava, 1929), 145. Quoted in Finnish as: ‘Eurooppa – sen tunnuskuvana voisi olla […] katedraalin yllä liitelevä lentokone. Amerikka – sen tunnuskuvana on lentokone pilvenpiirtäjän yllä. Viimemainitussa näyssä on täydellinen harmonia. Ensin mainitussa ei. Edellinen esittää nykyisyyttä. Jälkimmäinen tulevaisuutta.

[2] Paavolainen 1929, 29 and 32.

[3] Paavolainen 1929, 51.

[4] Paavolainen 1929, 148.

Featured image: Paul Gauguin, printer Pola Gauguin, Te po (Night Eternal), 1893–94 (printed 1921), woodcut, 20.5 x 25.5cm, Ahlström collection, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Jenni Nurminen

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Alongside the exhibition ‘Alvar Aalto – Art and the Modern Form,’ two conferences are being held at the Ateneum Art Museum: Alvar Aalto – Art and the Modern Form (in English and Finnish), 24 August; Aino Marsio-Aalto as a Designer (in Finnish), 9 September. For full details and programme visit